Monday
Jul222013

It's in the CAN

July is Michigan Craft Brewer’s Month. I recognized this holiday, and our country’s independence, by visiting two of the state’s newest brewers, both located in Petoskey. This lead to yet another discussion about craft beer in cans. 

Unless you’re exclusive a wine drinker and oblivious to the world around you, you’ve surely noticed the seemingly overnight proliferation of craft beers being sold in cans. It’s a ‘thang.  Some think it’s a gimmick. A few idiots even think it’s a mistake.   Let me set the record straight… no matter your personal bias towards cans, it is most definitely a thing…it’s a stunning economic milestone.

 

ECON 101 It BLOWS MY MIND how many people don’t get it, poor fools who are willing to go into debt for a liberal arts degree. We live in a world based on commerce. While admirable, an Arts degree will rarely pay the rent let alone a mortgage. With those poor readers in mind, let me explain the basic free-market imperatives that perfectly illustrate 1) why the first thirty years of craft brewing in Michigan were almost exclusively in glass and 2) why the next thirty years will most definitely be dominated by cans.

 

  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: Life is too short to endure ugly. I LOVE and $upport the arts. I belive Artist is an admirable profession. If I've offended anyone with a Liberal Arts dregree I apologize - and ask that you suck it. 

 

 

IN THE BEGINGING While making beer is a hobby, selling it is a business. When craft brewers began entering the business world they were confronted with the same realities any start-up endures…. managing cash-flow, leveraging debt and creating demand (marketing).  When faced with these constraints all businesses are forced to make choices. Perhaps they forego better visibility or foot traffic in place of a lower-rent storefront. Perhaps they make their own signs to avoid printing fees. For craft brewers, they made the economic decision to pack in glass versus cans.

 

QUALITY MY ASS   First let me dispel a myth. There are many folks who argue glass is a superior vessel for craft beer. To that I say, bullshit. Here are the most frequent arguments for and against…

1)   Taste: It’s said that cans add a metallic flavor to their contents. What about soup? For decades there has been technology that coats cans and eliminates any flavor migration. It is very practical to produce beer in cans without a tin flavor issue.

2)   The Lid: Many can’t let go of the metallic issue. They argue that can lining doesn’t resolve the flavor issue that comes from the sipping through a tin lid. To those folks I’d ask how many craft beers they drink from the bottle.  Craft beer is usually unfiltered. That means it’s prone to sediment in the bottle. I, like most, pour my beers into a glass. Objection neutralized.

3)   Light & Air Transmission: Here’s one clearly in favor of canning.  Light and air are both detrimental to maintaining quality.  That’s why all craft beer is in dark glass. Cans are far superior in both light and air transmission.

4)   Environmentalism: I’ve yet to find a company or academic who can produce quantifiable data for carbon-foot-printing. It’s all too theoretical. That leaves the practical science of finance to determine environmentalism. Again, cans are the clear winner. They are lighter, less costly as a raw material, use-less space thereby reducing shelf-space and freight, and according to every article found on the subject, recycled at a higher rate than glass. Cans win again.

 

So why did all craft beer start in glass?

 

It’s All about the Benjamin$ Now we’re onto something…and quite frankly – the only thing that matters. Imagine that you are an enterprising brewer. You’ve decided to make the leap into commercial enterprise. You’ve depleted your savings, hit-up every friend and family member who’ll take your call and applied for several SBA loans. You’ve quickly figured out it takes money to make money.

Now think about that pesky little business plan. Yes, all your friends think you make righteous brew, but will anyone buy it? How much brew do you have to sell to break even? How much do you have to sell to actually turn a profit? Hold that thought…

Most brewers sell on-premise. It’s an important part of the craft beer culture. Having said that, the real money comes from retail – selling your beer for consumption off-premise. That’s where the bottle vs. can argument takes traction.

My research tells me that a used bottling line can be had for as little as $20K. Blank bottles are readily available. They’re also easy to manually label and pack. Can-lines, on the other hand, are much more mechanized. They tend to have higher run-rates and require pre-printed packing stock (cans). The investment for a canning line can easily hit $200K.  Think about that…$20K for a bottling line vs. $200K for cans. Unless you’re an independently wealthy trustafarian there’s no debate. That, my friends, is why all craft beer started in bottles.

 

So what’s with the recent “Can-demic?”

 

PHASE 2: MARKET PENETRATION Here’s some good news – Craft brewers have entered a new stage in the adoption curve. They’ve grown from a niche cottage industry to bonefied mass-market contenders. Pretty cool, right? Maybe. There’s a rub…when you play in the big leagues the rules change and craft brewers re being forced to adapt. In the mass-market long-necks and growlers don’t carry the weight. Welcome the can.

"cans-o-plenty" At Meijer Thrifty Acres According to Forbes 53% of all beer is sold in cans. When you look solely at retail, eliminating kegs and beer sold in draft, the percentage of beer sold in cans in closer to 75%.  That’s a pretty big market to ignore.  Any brewery trying to make the financial leap from local-craft to regional or national player MUST offer cans. Without cans you won’t get served on pool decks, in parks, at sporting events or festivals – and without those you won’t get shelf-space – which means you won’t get distribution. Follow the money trail. Cans are a necessity for scale.

Want more proof? Look at Brewery Vivant and Petoskey Brewing. Here are two well-funded and networked up-start brewers. Arguably one has much better beer than the other. Regardless, both began their business with a can line. Why? The craft beer market is maturing.  Simply offering good beer isn’t enough anymore. The market is saturated. In order to differentiate you need to penetrate new channels, IE Cans.

 

WIZ-BANG The “Sam Can.” OK – so let’s agree that cans are important. That doesn’t mean there’s not still some marketing trickery going on. You wanna talk gimmicks? Here’s a gimmick.  After years of fighting the quality campaign, Sam Adams is giving in to the economic pressure for cans. You have to understand – this is a big deal.  For years, Jim Koch and the Boston Beer Company has been playing quality card against “Macro Brews.” Bottles and glassware have been an integral part oft their shtick.

Still, even Sam can’t ignore the opportunity cost of cans. So in an effort to not look like total hypocrites they’ve developed a new can design to coincide with their launch of the Sam Adams sold in cans. Enter the “Sam Can.” This "revolunionary" can has a slightly more generous lip, allowing better flow. (*cough*bulshit *) They’re reporting that over $1MIL has gone into the development of this can. Believe me when I tell you, this is marketing hyperbole at it’s best (or worst).  There is no reason, other than stubborn pride, that Sam waited this long to put their beer in cans and refuse to use standard beer cans.

 

Fighting for Good vs. Evil: THE CAN VAN

 In my research for this piece I ran across a pretty cool story. Two righteous MBA chicks from northern California have found an interesting way to both capitalized on the can craze and at the same time, nurture small brewers. They figures out what I’m telling you today…1) selling in cans is a strategic imperative and 2) producing cans is financially prohibitive. Solution: The Can Van.

These two ladies have created a successful business by providing the infrastructure for canning without the capital investment. They’ve put a canning line on wheels. Small brewers can rent their services to pack in cans. They’ve also eliminated the high-cost of pre-printed cans by developing a pack-line that allows small brewers to wrap-label unprinted cans. It’s brilliant. Yay Free market capitalism!

 

MI CRAFT CANS OK – so there’s my meditative rant about craft beer in cans. Thanks for sticking with me. By now you’re probably asking, “GastroBoy, what are some of the best canned beers in Michigan?” To that I provide these thoughts…

 

Frankinmuth Brewery – Twisted Helles Lager, 5.5% ABV, 18 IBU, 83 Beer Advocate Score

Before craft beer took over my fridge I had two house favorites, Corona in summer and Guinness in winter. And while I love craft beer, it’s rare to find a good session beer or light lager. Here’s a perfect answer to the “lawn mowing beer.” It goes down like water. They also get props for a very cleverly designed package; the finger holes mimick two eyes within a pair of wayfarers. Charming.

 

Petoskey Brewing –Mind’s Eye IPA, 6.7 ABV, 74 IBU, not yet rated on Beer Advocate

Everyone’s talking about Horney Monk, their Belgian Dubbel. If you prefer malt to hop go for it. I will line-up behind the IPA all summer long. Neither is as refined as I’d like - and clearly too high on the ABV to truly be considered a summer-time session, still, I can’t help but get excited for a brewery in Petoskey, let alone in cans that I can take on the boat. To be candid, the pint cans (vs. 12 oz) annoy me. By nature, the cans are being consumed outdoors, which means I retain cold-value by having the last 25% remain on ice.  And the price-point for 4-16 oz (net 64 oz) cans is similar to 6-12 oz cans-or-bottles (net 72 oz).  What gives? I will assume the margin is better and they’re exploiting the novelty of cans.

 

Brewery Vivant – Farm Hand (Saison / Farmhouse Ale), 5.5% ABV, IBU unknown, 82 on Beer Advocate

I can’t stop gushing over Vivant; the beers, the funeral-home chapel turned tap-room, the cans – I love it all.  I have found Farm Hand to be their broadest crowd-pleaser. The lighter ABV and subtle notes make it a perfect summer brew. And they’ve developing a strong distribution footprint. Bravo.

 

Arcadia Bewing Co. – Whtsun, 6.2 ABV, 17 IBU, 80 on Beer Advocate

Twice this year I’ve been asked to weigh-in on my opinion of Oberon vs. Whitson. Truth be told – I can’t be objective. I have a tremendously sentimental attachment to Oberon. That said, I have fallen in love with Whitsun. And until Larry get’s that can line running I can continue to avoid taking a stand and buy Oberon for the house and Whitsun for the cooler.

 

Wish List: The worst beer I ever drink is at tailgates. Historically that’s where I get my annual fix for Miller Lite or Labatt Blue in cans. How cool would it be if we all drank Wolverine Brewing at the next tailgate? And forget Premium Lager. Yes, it’s fine. However, I want Gulo Gulo!! What say you Liz (@a2beerwench)? Let’s go in on a can-van. We can rent it out when you’re not using it.

 

Post Scrpit: EXTRA CREDIT In honor of MI Craft Brewers month I did one more thing…I initiate my very first batch of home brew. As I type, a gallon of malted barley and cascade hops are fermenting in my dining room. Here’s where you come in…I’m looking to name this “GastroBrew.” By recipe it is an IPA. I need help. Are you creative? Finally – a use for that liberal arts degree. Click comment and help me name my beer. 

Monday
Jun242013

Summer Vacation?

It's becoming a tradition...

Winter brings tremendous inspiration and writing time. By late Spring I start noticing how empty the GastroBoy draft folder has become. Little by little I whittle down my stash of inspired content until finally Summer hits and I find myself in the same place.... Sitting in and airport wondering if I should put GastroBoy into hibernation. Today's contemplation vista happens to be DTW-B12, awaiting a flight to IAH (Houston).

Here's the thing about writing...It requires a stationary posture. If you know GastroBoy very well you know that sitting still in no easy task. I have a wicked case of ADD and an inability to say no. At work I have a staff of extremely fertile and upwardly mobile professionals adding the constant challenge of juggling maternity leaves and open positions. Bring into the mix parenting obligations and cohabitation with an equally active She-Lion and you quickly appreciate that free time is a scarce commodity. Visiting multiple restaurants to research culinary mediation takes time away from family, work and friends...I am constantly prioritizing.

Still, I enjoy maintaining GastroBoy. My tribe has grown and we've built momentum. And while I've never made a formal commitment about posting frequency I start to itch when the most recent work becomes 10 days old. Enacting a summer hibernation feels like quitting.

 

It Takes a Village

Perhaps your familiar with this quote, "If you're here AND I'm here, doesn't that make it OUR time?" I genuinely believe that this is "our site."  So let's agree that nether of us want a summer hibernation. Let's also agree that some GastroBoy readers are freeloading mother fuckers. You laugh and cry and repost my material but you never comment. You never write, you never call. Stop that. If you want to see GastroBoy continue to post through the foreseeable future you need to act. Rather than taking a summer vacation from the site I propose we work together to expedite content. Here's a few options...

 

I. ASK GASTROBOY

A few years ago a good friend gave me a subscription to Rolling Stone. While most of it is a painful reminder that I am hopelessly out of the musical loop, a few sections bring tremendous bi-weekly pleasure. Case-in-point: Ask Dr. Ozzy. It's a regular column where Ozzy Osbourne (or more likely, a staffer pretending to be Ozzy) answers reader questions on social protocol, often sexual. The responses are only slightly more ridiculous than the questions. It's a highlight in my Rollingtone reading ritual.

Last month when my sister was presented with a unique dining dilemma she suggested I offer reader advise by way of an "Ask GastroBoy" column. Here's your chance people. Have you been ridiculed for public flossing? Do you stress over when it's appropriate to ask for salt? Maybe you have an acorn shaped mole on your "who-ha" and don't know what to do. Ask GastroBoy at a2gastroboy@gmail.com and, assuming your question sparks my interest, I'll publish my response.

 

II. GUEST WRITERS

Have you read the Food and Wine Hedonist? How about (albeit not local) Laughing Squid? What do these sites have in common? Multiple writers. I once heard a reputable "social marketer" announce that in order to maintain traffic a blog must publish 3 times per week. Clearly I am slacking. So, in the spirit of partnership I am hereby offering you the reader a chance to be published, or rendered as the case may be. Perhaps you've been thinking about starting your own site and need a test-drive. Or maybe you have no aspirations to write more than once, but you have a Moth-worthy story to share. Now is your chance. E-Mail me you submission and I promise the chance to be posted. Please note, to be published your piece must include at least one of the following...Intelligence, snark, humor or "Quwan."

 

III. REQUEST LINES ARE OPEN

Here's another issue delaying posts...inspiration. I refuse to inflate page views by writing fluff pieces.  You know what I mean. Plenty of sites make a living out of the obligatory posts. All you need is a Halmark Calendar to draft an entire year of seasonal posts. Fuck that. I prefer creative non-fiction with autobiographical human affect. I want to write about things that genuinely peek curiosity. Perhaps you've got a topic that would spark inspiration. Maybe you're baffled by the incessant need for every "GastroPub" to offer Mac-N-Cheese. Maybe the term "Craft Comfort" makes you too vomit. Maybe you'd like to know how Kobyashi gets sixty hot dogs down in 5 minutes. Pitch the idea and maybe I'll take the bait. 

Need some Inspiration?

OK - I know this presents a large shift. You're used to GastroBoy serving as your lone Sherpa in this creative journey. While asking you to engage may be thrilling it may also provide some blank stares.  Because I’m a stand-up guy I’m going to suggest some creative fodor for your gastronomical pleasure in the form of summer homework.

 

1) Summer Reading:  Here’s what’s on my nightstand at this very moment. Perhaps there's something that you may enjoy...

An Economist Get's Lunch, Tyler Cowen

“Food snobbery is killing entrepreneurship and innovation, says economist, preeminent social commentator, and maverick dining guide blogger Tyler Cowen. Americans are becoming angry that our agricultural practices have led to global warming-but while food snobs are right that local food tastes better, they're wrong that it is better for the environment, and they are wrong that cheap food is bad food. The food world needs to know that you don't have to spend more to eat healthy, green, exciting meals. At last, some good news from an economist!

Tyler Cowen discusses everything from slow food to fast food, from agriculture to gourmet culture, from modernist cuisine to how to pick the best street vendor. He shows why airplane food is bad but airport food is good; why restaurants full of happy, attractive people serve mediocre meals; and why American food has improved as Americans drink more wine. And most important of all, he shows how to get good, cheap eats just about anywhere.

Just as The Great Stagnation was Cowen's response to all the fashionable thinking about the economic crisis, An Economist Gets Lunch is his response to all the fashionable thinking about food. Provocative, incisive, and as enjoyable as a juicy, grass-fed burger, it will influence what you'll choose to eat today and how we're going to feed the world tomorrow.”

 

The Big Green Egg Cook Book, Big Green Egg

“The cookbook EGGheads have been waiting for that features over 160 recipes designed specifically for the ceramic cooker, the Big Green Egg. It can sear, smoke, roast, and bake.

The Big Green Egg Cookbook is the first cookbook specifically celebrating this versatile ceramic cooker. Available in five sizes, Big Green Egg ceramic cookers can sear, grill, smoke, roast, and bake. Here is the cookbook EGGheads have been waiting for, offering a variety of recipes encompassing the cooker's capabilities as a grill, a smoker, and an oven.

The book's introduction explains the ancient history of ceramic cookers and the loyal devotion of self-proclaimed EGGheads to these dynamic, original American-designed cookers. Complete with more than 160 recipes and 100 color photographs, the Big Green Egg Cookbook is a must for the more than 1 million EGG owners in the United States and a great introduction for anyone wanting to crack the shell of EGGhead culture.”

 

Everything is Perfect when You're a Liar, Kelly Oxford

“Well, she's bitingly funny, but everybody knows that. -Roger Ebert on Kelly Oxford. The beautiful - and hilarious - Kelly Oxford has been one of the most hysterical voices on the Internet since it was still a series of tubes. In 1997, she began sharing stories of her life as a young wife and mother on a Geocities page, then on an anonymous blog, then on a MySpace account; eventually she found her metier in the widely followed Tumblr blog "Eject" and in her raucous, often filthy, always hilarious Twitter feed, which has garnered more than 300,000 followers (adding 1,500 more each week), with frequent retweets from heavy-hitting fans such as Roger Ebert, Jessica Alba, Tony Hawk, Diablo Cody, Kevin Nealon, Susan Orlean, Ann Curry, Adam McKay, Mindy Kaling, and Jonathan Ames. There is no mistaking Kelly's voice: Something people in McDonalds have? Fries. Something people in McDonalds don't have? Ankles. Chicken fried steak is the true American story: A place where even a chicken can be a steak. When my dog smells someone's crotch I say, 'Sorry, she's one of those cancer-smelling dogs.' Had my son's hearing tested because he's always yelling. Turns out he's just an asshole. 'She's a total psycho.' 'Completely.' 'But I mean, I still like her.' 'Me too, she's sweet.' -two girls beside me, and everywhere, right now. Straight-talking and riotously funny, Kelly Oxford has garnered an incredible following through her trademark blend of biting wit, self-deprecation, and a knack for seeing the hilarity in the everyday. Now, Kelly has written a side-splitting book of essays that shine her blindingly sardonic light on life as she sees it. From childhood to motherhood, from the zany to the tearjerking, Kelly covers it all: from My Soldier Face: Or how I awkwardly broke into modeling by ignoring adults who thought I was weird; I Peed my Pants and Threw up on a Chinese Man: Tales of a gas station accident and getting drunk for the first time, in ten minutes flat; To Aid and Abet: Interning in a video store and how to handle a man in a wheelchair jerking off in the porno section; Finding Leo: Or how to stalk pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio in L.A. on less than $200, but still end up driving a Mercedes; and An Open Letter to the Nurse Who Gave Me an Enema Bottle and Told Me to Do It Myself While I Was High on Morphine. Is Kelly the next David Sedaris? The next Chelsea Handler? The next Sloane Crosley? No - they were the last Kelly Oxford.” 

 

2) Leisure Activities

Live Music: Few things get me as excited as live music. I hereby order you to visit the Ark; Go to Sonic Lunch; Hang out at the Summer Festival. Live. Laugh. Tip your wait staff. Amen.

Spit Seeds: Two years ago I bought a Cherry-Pitter. It’s amazing. Having said that, I still prefer sitting on the porch with fresh some fruit trying to see how many cement squares I can cover with one well-paced spit. Give it a try.

Make Something With your Hands: I’m not too proud to admit that I own a glue gun. I used it to attach Oberon caps to my juice-bottle bird feeder. What can you up-cycle? Life is too short to endure ugly. Make some art.

Take a Nap Out Doors: As much as I suffer from ADD, there is nothing more delicious than laying in the hammock, listening to waves break on the shore and letting the sun warm my face. It’s beyond therapeutic. It feeds your soul.

 

Finally, perhaps you're new to A2GastroBoy. Perhaps you're wondering why anyone would give a shit? You're not alone. Here's a few posts from yours truly that garnered interest, IE these are the most popular posts from A2GastroBoy.

 

So that’s it. Now it’s up to you. Game ON. Get to work. 

Tuesday
Jun112013

Huevos con Dios

I’m a creature of habit. And while that may sound mundane, hear me out before you pass judgment. I travel a fair amount. To help minimize the disorienting nature of travel I’ve developed a set of coping behaviors. I always stay at Hilton properties. Yes, selfishly it allows me to consolidate points. More importantly it guarantees that I’ll know how to access the Internet, where to find coffee and how to get a beer after 11:00.  When I started this piece, my car was parked in 6D; the same section I park in for every trip. I never worry about finding my car – a gift since I’m usually exhausted and / or hung-over by that point.

Over time my habitual behaviors have also become a vehicle for discovery. Perhaps you’ve read my piece on fish tacos. Regardless of the city or restaurant, I can’t make a stop in Southern Cal without ordering fish tacos [LINK].  

 

After writing my piece on said Tacos I developed a new perspective on habits. Suddenly my allegedly OCD behavior wasn’t a series of boring routines like computer code, rather I started seeing them as rituals, or sacred ceremonies that add richness to my life. And speaking of ritual, I realized I have a similar compulsion, er…ritual, for Huevos Rancheros.

It started innocently in the summer of 1999.  I found myself in Coalinga, CA – perhaps the most unfortunately named city in all of California. And while it may sound like a genital armpit, Coalinga is an oasis, situated at the base of the San Joaquin Valley halfway between LA and San Fran.

Coalinga has two claims to fame. First of all, its home to the Harris Ranch, the largest domestic cattle ranch within the continental US. The name Harris Ranch also applies to the Harris family’s well-appointed restaurant / hotel / travel stop. Exit 334 has become a common resting point for travelers making the I-5 trek between LA and San Francisco. Think of it as California’s answer to West Branch. The next closest city is Fresno, seventy miles northeast, and let’s face it, no one’s going out of their way to stop in Fresno.

The San Joaquin Valley is also Tomato Country. The vast majority of all Tomato Soup, Tomato Sauce, Tomato Ketchup and V-8 produced in the US starts with vine-ripe tomatoes grown South of Sacramento and North of Bakersfield. During the 1999 harvest season I spent a week driving up and down the San Joaquin valley with a few seasoned Ag guys.

   

This was my first of what became many trips to the Valley. I was pretty green. Luckily these brotherly Ag guys decided to adopt me and show me the ropes. They nicknamed me “Gringo Grande.” And as a result I spent the remainder of the trip unsuccessfully trying to parlay that name into “G Love,” but I digress.

I leaned a tremendous amount on that trip. At the risk of sounding grandiose, it’s had a lasting impact both personally and professionally. Among the many important lessons learned on that trip I discovered the difference between an Almond and an A-mond (mechanical harvesters shake the “l” out of it), I learned that  “revolutionary” GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) include providing port-a-potties for the field workers lest they shit on your lettuce, and I discovered what “real” Ag guys eat for breakfast…Huevos Rancheros. Perhaps I was caught up in the moment, perhaps I’m romanticizing a fond memory… still as I remember it, at that moment, Huevos Rancheros at the Harris Ranch was the best breakfast of my life.

Since that trip I’ve made ordering Huevos Rancheros a moral imperative. It’s my personal stand, proving that I’m a “Real Ag Guy.” Regardless of the location, regardless the alternatives, if a breakfast menu includes Huevos Rancheros GastroBoy is required to order.

 

WHAT EXACTLY IS HUEVOS RANCHEROS?

Before I go any further I thought I’d better help educate the new generation of Gringo Grandes reading this post.

FROM WIKIPEDIA… “Huevos Rancheros (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈweβoz ranˈtʃeɾos], "rancher's eggs") is a popular breakfast dish consisting of eggs served in the style of the traditional large mid-morning fare on rural Mexican farms.

The basic dish consists of fried eggs served upon lightly fried corn tortillas topped with a tomato-chili sauce. Refried beans, Mexican-style rice, slices of avocado, or guacamole are common accompaniments.”

 

Since that fateful trip in 1999 I’ve experienced a pretty diverse series of Huevos meals.  To get a sense of range, log-on to the mobile Food Spotting App, search Huevos Rancheros and scroll through the photos. I’ve learned the subtleties of different tortilla presentations. The nuance of pinto vs. black vs. white beans, in all cases served whole vs. mashed and refried. I’ve learned that ranchero sauce, which should be a tomato-chili base, is often just salsa.  Avocado, a prerequisite in California, is an upcharge in the Midwest. I’ve learned that most “breakfast” joints cannot cook rice and asking for poached eggs will often earn you a scowl.

 

HUEVOS RANCHEROS IN THE WILD

Fankly, the majority of these meals have left me wanting. On more than one occasion I’ve had a severe case of plate-envy, wishing my self-imposed breakfast ritual would allow for more biscuits and gravy or chicken and waffles. Still, I follow the code.

Earlier this year I was in San Antonio for a conference. With limited time before meetings I made a culinary concession – I decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. In all candor, I was really craving a Starbucks oatmeal and a fruit parfait (yes I’m aware of how pathetic that sounds) but the line at Starbucks was beyond daunting.  So I sat down, opened the menu, saw Huevos Rancheros….and this piece was born.

It’s been fourteen years since my first Huevos at the Harris Ranch and truth be told this was the first time since Coalinga (say it again, “Coalinga,” still sounds dirty, doesn’t it?) I was genuinely surprised and delighted by what I received.

Most purists will likely argue that this was not a traditional Huevos Rancheros. To that I say, “so ‘effing what?” What’s so idealic about the original? It’s farm-hand peasant food. The equivalent to Mexican breakfast slop. I applaud the hotel culinary staff for making something more desirable. It was so good I had a repeat order the next day – and immediately starting scribing notes for this piece.

What made it so good? I don't want to blow the whole secret - but I'll give you a hint....CRUNCH. 

 

Two weeks later I was in Santa Monica, CA and had a chance to revisit another one of my favorite interpretations, Cora’s Coffee Shoppe. This is definitely a more traditional presentation. Whether or not you order Huevos Racheros, make sure include Cora’s on your next Santa Monica culinary tour.

  

HUEVOS RANCHEROS IN ANN ARBOR

Back home I often break the Huevos man code. That said, I have made a point of sampling the local flavor. It turns out that there’s many more local options than you may initially believe. Here’s a bit on three of my more familiar options. 

 

Seva        (choice of eggs or tofu on a fried corn tortilla, with ranchero sauce, black beans, mexican rice and broiled cheese or daiya, with a steamed whole wheat tortilla, $10)

Here’s a fun antidote…For years my code name for Seva has been “Moosewood.” For those out-of-the-know, Moosewood is a long recognized [mostly] vegetarian restaurant in Ithica, New York. They drew national fame in the 80’s by publishing a series of vegetarian cookbooks.

From my perspective, this was a different era. In the 80’s having a vegetarian menu was novel enough that taste wasn’t appropriately measured. The predominant ingredients were brown rice and tofu and the predominant flavor was hot sauce, which was necessary to make all of that brown go down. I’ll further explain my perspective by reveling that in my last year of undergrad I lived in a co-op. We had communal dinners. The cook’s favorite source for recipes was a Moosewood cookbook. They were the most bland and monotonous meals of my life. 

Now before you organize a hippi protest supporting Seva – let me say that I respect Seva. Not only do I long to have my photo taken atop Mt. Kilimanjaro wearing a blue Seva shirt so I can join the famed photo wall, I have absolute respect for any restaurant that endures for forty years relatively unchanged. It inhabits a special place in our community, and thereby earns leniency in my culinary evaluation.

Thinking about this article I did some research on Moosewood. In the process I learned that both Seva and Moosewood opened in 1973. They’re fraternal Big-Ten/ Ivy League twins. Be proud RTocco.

I just realized that I’ve written 270 words about Seva without specifically addressing the food. That pretty much sums up my culinary impression of Seva, whether we’re discussing Huevos or any other Moosewood-esque fare.  If you’re going to Seva strictly for the food you need to let up on the Patchouli and read some Ayn Rand. In either case, if you want to experience the legend as it’s existed for forty years you’d better hurry. Their lease is up soon.

 

Zingerman’s Roadhouse       (*Huevos Rancheros (V, GF) $9.50, Fresh scrambled eggs* on green chile salsa and topped with Ig Vella Monterey Jack cheese. Served over refried beans and a crispy tortilla. Add a side of bacon 3 pieces/$3.00)

This is where I remind everyone that I’m a totally biased Zingerman’s fan-boy. I once worked at the deli, my family eats at the Roadhouse more than any other restaurant in Ann Arbor and I have personal love and respect for many of the Zingy-people. This afternoon I’ll attend Grill’n, the annual Food Gatherer’s fundraiser –  yet another example of the tremendous impact these two crazy mensches have had on our community. 

Next, let me point out to all of the Zing-Haters that their version of Huevos is $0.50 cheaper than Seva. Take that Hippis.

Now for the eggs…ahh, see for yourself. Here’s what I will say – this is the heaviest, most flavorful bean dish Ann Arbor has to offer and Green Chile salsa will clear your sinuses. If my memory serves correctly, the tortillas were plated underneath the beans and eggs and I found that odd.

 

Aut Bar     (Two eggs over easy topped with ranchero sauce and cheese. Served with two tortillas, rice and beans. $5.75)

Yes, I said Aut Bar. One of the best “Townie secrets” is Sunday Brunch at the Aut Bar. Not only is sitting outside in Braun Court one of the city’s most glorious respites, the outdoor seating serves as a nice safe zone protecting uneasy breaders afraid of crossing the threshold from the young militant Nancy-Boys who resent the breaders presence.  Prior to being a bar the Aut was a Mexican restaurant. The flavor endures.  Whatever you do, don’t leave the Aut Bar without trying and order of the sweet potatoes. Trust me.

PS: This is still very much an “alternative” bar. Bringing children into the Aut Bar restroom may result in some curious observations.

 

Where else? The short list of additional local options includes Northside Grille, Café Marie and Sabor Latino. What are your thoughts on these contestants? Are there others worth mention? Use the comments section to keep me from my lonely cloud of self-loathing and doubt. 

Wednesday
May292013

Chick Food Breaks the Grass Ceiling | THE BIG SALAD

Try this … Go into a Zoup Restaurant during the weekday lunch rush. Count the ratio of women to men. I’m willing to be bet, nay, guarantee, you’ll find more chicks than dudes. Now go down the road to Great Plains Burgers and do the same math. All dudes, right?

Now consider this… According to the Marketing to Women Conference 85% of all brand purchases are made by women…And women account for 93% of food purchases. According to a study from the Boston Consulting Group, women in the U.S. reported “controlling” 72.8% of household spending. Welcome to the “She-conomoy,” right?

Maybe not. Answer this… Which is more mainstream? Burgers or Salad? If women control the purse strings of the world, why does “Dude Food” rule the gastronomic landscape? Hold that thought.

I’ll just have a Salad
In the traditional menu hierarchy a few recipes have been permanently relegated to understudy fame. Enter the salad. Muscle tissue, AKA Meat, embodies power and wealth. Fat represents flavor. Greens are just plain…plain.

And from an economics standpoint, few restaurateurs are getting in line to promote salads. The margins are meager. They have a limited shelf-life and a single brown leaf can render the entire entre a failure. It’s a hard kid to like.

Still salad has a requisite place on every menu from Chuckie Cheese to the Chop House. What gives? I'll tell you...the Veto Vote. Have you heard of it?

Imagine four friends discussing dinner. Three of them are salivating for meat. The fourth isn’t feeling it. After debating every traditional BBQ joint in town they end up at Casey's ordering four burgers and a mixed green salad with grilled salmon. If Casey's didn't have salads they've have gone to Red Hawk or Grizzly, or ABC, or any other joint that caters to broad palates. Welcome to the veto vote.

There’s another issue at play…sometime between Magnum PI and Glee the American health paradigm changed. Richard Simmons morphed into Jillian Michaels and our Nikes started coming with computer chips that synch with running maps, calorie counters, heart rate monitors and a host of other applications. Health has gone from fad to an integral component of well-being. And guess who came along for the ride? Salads.

Now here’s my final meditation before finally addressing the concept at hand. While health was becoming mainstream, there was a separate, still related transformation occurring. Diners have been replaced with cafes.

Kiss My Grits
In the 70s and 80s “fast casual” meant diners. Regardless of the time of day, you could park yourself in a booth and get a coffee, a BLT, a slice of pie or a short stack of pancakes. It was quick, it was easy and it was cheap. What it was not, however, was dramatically profitable or implicitly healthy. Simultaneously diners began looking for, albeit often only superficially, more healthy and fashionable alternatives. The owners and employees of these “greasy spoons” began looking for endeavors with better returns on investment.

Consider Panera Bread versus Denny’s, or locally the Clover Leaf or Afternoon Delight. Fundamentally these concepts are the same. In both cases old men read the paper over coffee and Danish. Harried business people use it as their office away from home and bored high school kids loiter exploiting the free refills. The only real difference is that Panera get’s better margins and fewer drunks. Flim Flam becoming Song Bird is a perfect example.



Building a Better Mouse Trap [or Brand]
Now let’s turn our sights to the Big Salad. As brands like Panera take over the world, new aspiring entrepreneurs are finding it more and more difficult to differentiate. The most commonly deployed tactic for competitive differentiation uses a single menu item as the hero. They may skew in primary day-part, still they all generically target the same crowd. Think about Zoup vs. Noodles & Co. vs. Einsteins vs. Olga’s. Each one of these concepts serves sandwiches (or an easily substitutable entrée), soup, salads and drinks. Are they really that different? Even traditionally fast food joints are emulating the ideal. McCafe is no accident. And since the world already has fancy bagels, burritos, crepes, coffee, noodles and wraps, why not salad?

The Big Salad
It started in Grosse Pointe by John Bornoty. John was not, by trade a restaurateur. He was, however, a tremendously talented and accomplished business mind. After a brief proof of concept John set-up the Big Salad for growth. While there are less than ten in existence today, they tout an aggressive goal of having over 220 by 2020. The Ann Arbor location that recently opened in the Plymouth Road Plaza is owned and operated by the young and promising Franchisee, Kevin Vlazny.

Break Down: It's pretty straight forward. Think Subway for salads. For the uninspired, Big Salad offers a handful of fairly staid speciality and signature salads. For the creative set, you're encouraged to pick your own creation. You have a choice of base (iceberg, romaine, spinach) about thirty meat, cheese and vegetable toppings and roughly twenty different dressings. For an upcharge you can add chicken breast, salmon or crab meat. portions are generous and if desired, come with a freshly baked whole grain dinner roll. Each salad is made to order and at the customers choosing, chopped rather than tossed. And while the name might imply nothing but salads, they ensure something for everyone by offering a few sandwiches and daily soups.

    

 
The chopping is curious. From the customer's stand point it's a tremendous show. The salad chefs use double bladed cutting wheels to mix and mince the ingredients. The uncommon preparation method is novel and entertaining. From an employer's standpoint, it's not only time consuming, but a workers comp claim waiting to happen. I'm not sure the result is worth the effort. While chopping salads does in fact provide a more thorough mixing of ingredients, it detracts from the aesthetic of fresh greens. I'm gonna go out on a limb and call it a gimmick - one that, at the same, is sure to impress the layperson.

Now here's the cleaver bits...Big Salad understands the mechanics of salad - specifically the cold chain. Even more importantly they understand the value of pageantry. Tremendous thought went into maintaining the quality of greens via constant temperature control. Still more thought went into making these actions visible.

The first thing you'll notice is the large salad chillers. As you can imagine, they go through a great deal of lettuce. Refrigerated make-line pans would work as well, yet keeping them stocked would proved futile. The chillers are very practical. And while not particularly inventive, I'm guessing most folks have not seen these counter-top chillers. Their large presence is impressive.

    

 
The next trick is less obvious. All of the salad bowls and tools are washed after every use and kept refrigerated. The sanitation is key to mitigating flavor contamination. The chilling is 50/50 practical and showmanship. In either case, it's a wonderfully marketable feature of their service.

I've now been to the Big Salad twice, once on a whim, and a second time two days later to gather more intellience and test my initial reactions. Business appears brisk. On both occasions there was a line stretching to the door. They do a fair job of getting folks through the line in a reasonable amount of time. The dining room is a bit stark. There's opportunity to better establish the brand's character with stronger atmospheric detail. Surprisingly, the crowd was not entirely chicks. Though I did note that I was the only "all male" party. If they can harness the loyaty of female shoppers they just might be onto something.

Flavor: So here's the real test...how did it taste? Frankly, meh. Not bad, not great. Safe. Lately I've found myself eating salads with little or no dressing, which made Big Salad a challenge. They were heavy handed with with the sauce. They're clearly going after scale versus Michelan stars. The toppings were adequate if not pedestrian. The dressings appear to be made from soy-bean oil and flavor packets versus more expensive ingredients like olive oil, fresh citrus and aged vinegars. The balsamic basil vinaigrette was a wee bit tart and acidic. The bread was without character and the beverages were run of the mill soda and iced tea.

Final Verdict:The jury is out. Don't go out and buy a franchise just yet. I applaud the Big Salad for creating a unique take on the cafe experience. Still, it's new territory. I'll be curious to see how they endure. My guess is that they'll see traffic slow in colder months. Assuming the name is not inherently limiting it's an opportunity to market their soup and sandwiches. I'd also like to see how they fare in a less affluent location. Professional Ann Arborites are willing to pay over $10 for salad and a soda. Will the Jackson's of the world? If not growth will be limiting. Finally, lunchtime catering seems to be the fiscal excellerator for fast casual concepts. Can Big Salad win over the office Bettys?

Net, Big Salad is clearly better than the drive-through at McDonalds, still shy of lunch at Juicy Kitchen, the Lunch Box, the Beet Box or Jerusalem Garden. I'm hoping there's a sufficient pool of white collar women to keep them in business. Welcome to town Big Salad. Good luck.

Sunday
May192013

Las Vegas | Neon Boneyard

This post is dedicted to the Memory of Dr. Steven E. Gradwohl, or as I knew him, "Stevie G."

 

This weekend I was in Vegas. That's where I got the call. Stevie G is dead. While the english language is a mighty tool, words alone will never adequately describe grief. I was gutted.  I was in no condition to hit the Vegas Strip. But there I was. 

It’s relevant to know that I have a passion for historic neon signs.  To get some space and collect my thoughts I went out to the Neon Boneyard, a two-acre site owned and operated by an organization dedicated to collecting, preserving, studying and exhibiting iconic Las Vegas signs. It was a perfect respite.

While I wandered the dessert that afternoon I spent a lot of energy processing my thoughts about Stevie G. It struck me that while many folks will remember Steve as a doctor, a proud Field Hockey father, a runner, a cast member in multiple Burns Park plays…I know Steve as a foodie.   In fact, Steve’s had a significant role in many A2GastroBoy articles.

 

  • Steve was the first friend to get home delivery for freshly roasted [Mighty Good] Coffee. It was Steve who would encourage me to try it, inspiring my piece on Coffee. [LINK
  • When I wrote about steak, it was because of a weekend with Steve. The lead photo is of a meal he and I cooked together. [LINK]
  • It was Steve who taught me one of the best Daddy meals known to man, “Hot Dog on a Stick.” I detailed it in my piece about Hot Dogs in April 2012. [LINK
  • And perhaps my favorite Stevie G food memories came last fall on a trip to Dallas. Eight of us had dinner at Nobu – the chef’s tasting menu and many bottles of wine. It was an epic meal. Now, you need to appreciate that Steve was a frugal man. And while Steve ate well, he would never treat himself to meals this extravagant. When the bill came he was absolutely taken aback. It was so out of character for his financial sensibilities that he kept a copy of the check as souvenir. This is the same man who often reminded me, “when the money’s tight the Rock is right.” Referring of course to his willingness to drink Rolling Rock Beer.

 

 

I will miss you Stevie G. The world is a better place because of you. I am humbled and honored to call you my friend. This slide show is for you.